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POLITICS: PennAve

Outside firm key to success of GOP's digital future

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Politics,Barack Obama,Republican Party,Democratic Party,John Boehner,2012 Elections,2014 Elections,2016 Elections,David M. Drucker,Campaigns,PennAve,Mitt Romney,Technology

The success of the Republican Party’s digital overhaul could hinge on Data Trust, a private contractor that exists primarily to help the GOP manage and manipulate the massive amount of voter data the party plans to collect.

The limited liability corporation, founded by GOP loyalists two years ago to help the Republican National Committee warehouse and share voter information, is in the midst of its own rebuilding project. Both the RNC and Data Trust have moved to modernize their digital capabilities in the aftermath of President Obama’s 2012 re-election victory, which was credited in part to his campaign’s superior technological prowess. Leading the RNC is effort is former Facebook engineer Andy Barkett.

But Barkett's new digital blueprint, which calls for an unprecedented level of data collection, manipulation and sharing with approved GOP campaigns and third-party groups, doesn't work without Data Trust. The company is supposed to provide the RNC with a digital infrastructure -- a platform to house committee-generated data that also allows GOP campaigns and groups to easily access that data and share information they have collected separately.

Johnny DeStefano, hired in July as Data Trust's new president, is responsible for upgrading the organization and ensuring that it can provide the RNC with the services it needs to fulfill its digital overhaul. DeStefano is a former aide to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and was a senior official at the National Republican Congressional Committee in 2010. In an interview, he discussed the work ahead for Data Trust and its role in the party's comeback.

“We exist to help Republicans win, but we’re not controlled by the RNC,” DeStefano told the Washington Examiner.

Obama soundly defeated Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney last year, and Democrats picked up two Senate seats and eight House seats. Various reasons have been cited for the GOP’s poor 2012 showing. Chief among them was the Obama campaign’s advanced voter targeting operation, which harnessed social media and other means of communication with voters. It gathered and synthesized data far more effectively than the Republicans.

That motivated the RNC to re-evaluate how it prepares for and functions in campaigns. Data Trust did the same to help the national party manage and use voter files. And while the RNC is likely to remain Data Trust’s largest client — and pay the firm like any other outside contractor — the organization hopes to serve all GOP national party committees, state committees, candidates and friendly third-party groups.

To gear up, Data Trust is hiring its own team of data scientists and software engineers and is planning to open an office in California’s Silicon Valley. The organization’s goal is to make new data services available by year’s end and provide an expanded offering for use in the 2014 midterm campaigns. Data Trust hopes to complete its rebuilding and expansion before the 2016 presidential election, which fits the RNC’s timeline.

Republican political operatives are taking a wait-and-see approach. The GOP hasn’t outpaced the Democratic Party in terms of digital operations and voter targeting since President George W. Bush won re-election nearly a decade ago. “We’re just waiting for, what do you got, what are you going to show us?” said one Washington-based veteran of Republican politics.

If Data Trust accomplishes its mission, it could function as the ultimate voter file and data exchange. But key to making the company's plan work is its intent to allow Republican campaigns and outside groups to use the Data Trust hub to legally exchange only information they are comfortable sharing without having to first do the painstaking work of setting aside data they don't want to share.

Additionally, Data Trust hopes to operate as a filter between Republican campaigns and technology vendors, educating both sides on best practices and the best methods for accumulating, synthesizing and deploying voter targeting information to help improve the data literacy of both candidates and vendors. Because Data Trust exists to help the GOP win elections, it plans to keep the cost for accessing its data and other information services affordable for its intended client base.

“We want to make what we do sustainable,” DeStefano said.

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